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Share, Shine and Compete – the case about nearshoring and one sparkling team

At the end of February one of our clients from the Netherlands held a visit to our Chernivtsi office. In this interview, we are going to talk with Barry Meijer, Strategic Technology Officer at Sparkles. He will tell us about their company and their business idea, how he started to work with nearshoring companies, and share a few tips on how to manage mixed in-house and remote software development teams.


Hello Barry! Could you, please, tell us about your project and services you provide?

Sparkles is successful with webshops where you can customize your own cards, especially cards for live-events. Think about cards for when a child is born, you are celebrating an anniversary or when someone dies.

Our added value is in the easy way of customizing your own products (cards) and the experience we create around it. You create the card, get amazing customer experience and when needed customer service from our customer happiness department. After ordering, we create and fulfill your order and ship it to you.

At this moment we are also expanding to the b2b (business-to-business) side of the printing business. For example, when companies have to print posters, flyers or business cards. But also making our applications more scalable by rebuilding parts of existing applications as services. Our new production hub (an application to divide orders between suppliers and track status changes) is a great example of that. The production hub was also the first project/application build by our Ukrainian developers, and yes we call them OUR developers and not SharpMinds developers because they are Sparkles developers.

How did the idea of this project come to you? Why cards? 

To excel in business you have to choose a good niche to work in, a piece of the market where you can add value. The competition for cards in the Netherlands is quite high, so our choice to work with live-events was a good one, especially in combination with easy customization and high quality.

And how did you start your cooperation with SM?

One of the strongest factors of our success with SharpMinds is that we weren’t searching for nearshoring. My colleague, Sparkles CEO Mark, came to me and said that one of his friends has a company that helps companies set up nearshoring – SharpMinds. Getting senior developers in the Netherlands is quite challenging, so we decided to give it a try. After an initial meeting with SharpMinds tech management to discuss what was possible, we decided to start with three developers on a project that had to be built from scratch. I wrote out a technical document, had a few meetings with the team and before we knew it they were well on their way. Real fun!

The second factor of our success is that we are in this for the long run. Sparkles believes in creating sustainable relations with people and companies that believe in the same values. In the case of outsourcing, we do not believe in ‘using when needed’ and ‘throw away the developers when business is doing badly.’ This is the only way to work together with the developers and for them to learn about our culture and make them appreciate it too. You learn together, even when you make big mistakes such as throwing away a live database or creating a killer bug that takes down the system for multiple hours. Mistakes are made and as long as the communication is clear and transparent it is ok, and we can learn together.

Outline what benefits you got from outsourcing to Ukraine?

Seniority, that is what we got out of it. Don’t get me wrong, we also have seniority on the Dutch side, but it is really hard nowadays to find Senior developers in the Netherlands. It was amazing to see that we hired one Ukrainian dev (now our team lead) and he knew multiple other developers. We didn’t have to search, he brought them in for interviews and now we have an amazing team with great energy!

What do you pay attention to during the interviews (soft skills or hard skills)?

I always go for soft skills. The first thing I always tell at interviews with Dutch AND Ukrainian developers is that it doesn’t matter if they can prove to me that they can program during the interview. I believe their resume. If they lie about it, we will find out pretty soon, believe me. In the case of SharpMinds we know you already do a technical screening. It’s all about the personal click we have with the developers.

And what technologies were you looking for in your project?  How smooth was the integration of this technology and how Ukrainian developers blended in the project?

In this case, it was really simple — .NET. We started a lot of new projects to build services or rebuild parts of our monolithic application into a service. One application was our Production Hub, which was built by the Ukrainian developers. In the meantime, the Dutch developers were working on a different application. Later, we merged both teams into one, so a team of Ukrainian and Dutch developers was born. The first thing that happened was that the Ukrainian developers went through the codebase to learn about the application and they could share the learnings of the Production Hub application with the other part of the team. We believe that you grow from the feedback and also of refactoring. For the Ukrainian developers, this was not something they naturally wanted to give even though they had a good idea for the other applications. After a week our SharpMinds project coordinator came to me to share that the team was sitting on a great refactoring idea for the application. I couldn’t wait to see it and after a good talk with the whole team (Dutch and Ukrainian), we decided to refactor the application, even though it stretched the time to market. This was also a good moment to tell the Ukrainian devs to ALWAYS share these ideas and feedback.

What is the most important or useful function on your platform/in the application the Ukrainian team created?

For now, I would say that it is the Production Hub. Especially because that is really close to “done”. This application makes sure that all orders are divided and sent to the right suppliers. It also monitors order statuses and sends them back to the e-commerce platform. Now in the combined team (Dutch and Ukrainian), they are creating magic together in really cool applications.

What values do you promote at Sparkles?

Share, Shine and Compete. I will explain what these words mean for me on the example of development. “Share” stands for knowledge sharing, sharing good and bad times, also sharing in the broadest way. “Shine” means being proud of what you’ve built or do. Being proud of the company and owning your successes. “Compete” is a beautiful one because it helps you run a little bit harder, program a little bit better than before, having fun because you delivered faster than you said you could. “Compete” is a powerful one because it can only work inside a safe environment. “Compete” but keep it friendly!

How do you help your employees to grow professionally?

I believe that in most cases developers will grow by themselves and ask for resources or help when needed. But we also have individual conversations with developers. For example, Kevin (the product owner of the Dutch/Ukrainian team) spent the whole day today (day of interview) having one-on-one meetings with the Ukrainian developers getting to know each other and learning about their goals and wishes. When possible actions are taken to help them with their goals, how amazing is that!

And how often do these 1-on-1s take place? 

We try to do these talks at least 2 times a year. You always learn something new and I believe by making people talk about themselves and think about themselves, they also learn something new sometimes.

What is the composition of your team right now, how many people are there?

At this moment we have a .NET team with two Dutch developers and 4 Ukrainian developers. We want our teams to be balanced for better synergy. Also, it is not our intention to replace Dutch development with outsourcing, so that balance is really important and so the next new developer is on the Dutch side. We also have a Python team with 2 Ukrainian devs in them, which is a lot of fun because we now also have Sparkles developers in Uzhhorod!

And what were your main threats of outsourcing to Ukraine?

Threats? I believe there are absolutely no threats when the implementation is correct. I mean, don’t separate the developers by nationality. Don’t create a Ukrainian dev team and a Dutch dev team… that will not create ‘working together’, it will create an atmosphere of blame and controversy. Developers are developers and nationality doesn’t change that. We all want the same thing – build awesome software.

Do you see any cultural differences that may become obstacles?

If you ask me, and you are asking me, there are no real cultural differences. The Netherlands and Ukraine both have a huge agricultural background and you can see that if you look at work ethics and even in the food. The food is one thing that got me some credits from the Ukrainian team because the last time I was here I was eating everything they ordered and I ALWAYS taste everything (laughs). Other than that, company culture is what counts and the only way to transfer that is by emerging them in it. We try to get them to the Netherlands as often as possible.

Would you advise other businesses to build the team in Ukraine?

Absolutely! My only advice is, if you think it is as simple as throwing money at Ukrainian developers and receiving success in exchange, it doesn’t work that way! Working with remote developers deserves commitment and investing time and kindness. Work together and you will earn more than you could have expected!